It seems to have been written as a farce or a parody – at least I hope it was. While the tension and the stakes are there (barely, but present nonetheless), Battleship is unashamedly cheesy. It throws in corny curveballs, implausible characterizations, blatant Navy worshipping and patriotism and plenty of out-of-place attempts at humour, amidst these serious situations. I’d even say it even turns to bashing itself (and in extension, the blockbuster – though this is very uneven) to produce laughs. It is trashy, brainless popcorn entertainment in every way, but I was never bored during the film – often so bad it was amusing, and on a couple of occasions quite impressive – so that’s something.
NASA, having sent out a signal into space to explore the possibility of extraterrestrial life, gets their answer. Five alien vessels plummet to earth from Planet G, with one (their communication pod) breaking off and crashing into Hong Kong, while the other four land in the Pacific, in vicinity of the unsuspecting American and Japanese Navy who are completing routine training exercises off the coast of Hawaii.
The USS John Paul Jones, commandeered by the unpredictable and hotheaded, but gusty Lieutenant, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter), is one of only a few vessels left stranded inside a force field produced by a fleet of alien spaceships. After an investigation of the vessels, they come to life and a battle commences, which decimates the Naval fleets. Hopper, now in charge a ragtag band of sailors (Rihanna and Jessie Plemons included), and learning that they are outmatched, changes tactics in an attempt to stop the aliens from communicating back to their planet.
Hopper has been brought out of the slacker doldrums by his hard-assed older brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard, True Blood), Commander of the USS Sampson, and has won over the affections of the beautiful Samantha (Brooklyn Decker). She happens to be the daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, rarely used and not very good).
After some fiddling around setting up these characters – Alex wins over Samantha by going to great lengths to buy her a burrito, stresses about asking the Admiral for his permission to marry her, and is threatened with being kicked out of the Navy for several scrapes with Commanding Officer of the JDS Myoko, Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) - they are all given roles in saving the world. An amputee war hero and a communications expert, who has all the answers for the Government big wigs who sit in their boardroom looking on nervously and barking orders, join Samantha on an island and unexpectedly play a part in downing the alien’s attempts to communicate.
So there is a semblance of a plot at least. We understand the motivations of the aliens - to utilize the ocean as a power source and signal their planet - and the danger they present to Earth (their ships certainly pack a wallop) but there is no denying that this premise is as unoriginal as casting Liam Neeson in a film these days. Many have joked about the film appearing to have a Transformers influence, and though it shares many features, I found this to be superior to Bay’s last two installments, in Berg’s handling of the action sequences, the balance of comedy and action, and as all-round entertainment value.
The script is moronic and the early attempts to build character are laughably poor, the dialogue is absolutely atrocious, the acting is ordinary (Kitsch was solid but unsuited, Rihanna was not as terrible as expected, but Alexander Skarsgard mistook yelling for being authoritative), and there are gigantic plot holes everywhere. They are big enough to undermine key sequences. But, really, no one is going to go into this film expecting anything other than that, so this can be forgiven, to an extent. At one point as the John Paul Jones nears one of the alien stations, having had their asses kicked for about an hour, Kitsch says: “I have a bad feeling about this.” That’s the kind of film it is. It knows it is dumb. I think.
So, how are the action sequences and the spectacle? Pretty good. There is lots gunfire, explosions and destruction, large-scale action set pieces, a big (and effective) score, sweeping shots across the ‘battle grid’ and expensive-looking effects. The best sequence in the film (easily) is one of the few that lasts longer than a couple of seconds. Actually it is quite a lengthy shot. It blends large-scale disaster with genuine tension and features some of the best-looking effects in the film. I would like to say it is worth watching for this scene alone, but that is taking it a bit too far.
It feels like one big joke and a weird parody of itself. On one hand there is an enormous amount of product placement and attempts to be a giant ‘Join the Navy’ campaign, celebrating elderly Navy veterans and those left disabled by their military service (and using actual veterans in the film), and on the other it acknowledges its gaming ‘origins’ by staging a sequence that actually plays out like a game of Battleship. The sides cannot see each other (why, we don’t know), with the Americans putting together intelligence of the whereabouts of the alien craft, but firing blindly but desperately. Sound familiar?
Peter Berg hasn’t done a bad job. While some of the action sequences have some spectacular moments, and it wasn’t in 3D (how did that happen?), the running time is not justified, considering how poorly developed the characters are and how small in scale the battle really is. If Berg’s agenda was to create brainless popcorn spectacle for the masses, he has succeeded, but that still doesn’t overcome the endless shortcomings. You know what you're in for, but it is just too inconsistent to recommend.
My Rating: ★★ (C-)